Pets Improving Lives

September 11, 2020

This year has taught us all about the importance of immunity. Many of us are doing our best to improve immune function. Strategies to reach this goal vary widely in practicality and scientific grounding. But could it be that one of the ways to improve immune function is right under our noses? Could our pets be influencing our immunity, and if so, how?

Modern-day humans spend a big chunk of our lives with pets, with 65 percent of U.S. households having at least one. So, it’s no surprise that researchers want to know whether all this time with domesticated animals influences our health. Though the science has been somewhat mixed, recent data has supported several health benefits associated with pet ownership.

One of the most basic connections between our health and our animals is the psychological benefit of having a pet. In a recent review, having a pet was associated with better psychological wellbeing for those with mental health conditions. Of 2,000 pet owners surveyed, 74 percent reported mental health improvements from pet ownership. Other research suggests that pets may even help stave off death. A 2019 review of data from over 3 million people revealed that dog ownership was associated with a 24 percent reduced risk of dying over a 10-year period.

More specifically, how do our pets affect our immunity? One way may be by lowering our risk of developing allergic diseases. While the data are again a bit mixed, a clearer picture emerges when looking at the immune effects of specific pets. For example, in a 2012 meta-analysis, early life exposure to any pet was associated with a decreased risk of developing eczema, an allergic skin condition. While the benefit was strong for dogs, it vanished in those exposed to cats. Similarly, dog exposure in early life has been associated with a lower risk for subsequent allergies, but cat exposure was not.

There’s also data suggesting that exposure to pets may influence specific aspects of the immune system. After petting a dog, volunteers showed a significant increase in salivary levels of an immune antibody called IgA, a key player in our immune defense. When exposed to an immune-activating signal, the cells of children exposed to cats produced different immune molecules than those of children exposed to dogs.

In addition to directly influencing immune markers, it’s likely that one of the biggest effects of animals on our immunity involves our stress response. Chronic psychological stress is well known to damage our immune function, compromising our ability to fight off infections while increasing inflammation. Pets may be able to help ward off this destructive effect by dampening stress through companionship and the facilitation of social connection with others. Research has indicated that exposure to a therapy dog may help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In another experiment designed to induce stress, children with access to their pet dogs felt less psychological strain.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the immune effects of pet ownership may be in part due to changes in our microbes. Scientists are increasingly studying how the bugs that live on and in us affect our health. It turns out that our microbes heavily influence and are influenced by our immune system. That’s why it’s interesting to note that adult dog owners and their dogs share  similarities in their skin microbes. Though in early stages, this type of research seems to indicate that our wellbeing and potentially our immunity could be affected by microbes from our pets!

In the bigger picture, it seems quite likely that multiple aspects of our health are affected by our contact with animals. While it’s notable that some pets may rarely increase our risk for certain infections, research indicates that our furry friends may provide many of us with immunity benefits. These positive effects appear to occur through a combination of direct influences on our immune system as well as indirectly by lowering stress and improving social connections. At a time when so many of us are seeking to better our immunity, we should be aware that our pets may be granting us far more than simple companionship.

  • Most Recent News

    Big Dogs Need Owners

    October 9, 2020

    When the shutdown orders took full effect, it became nearly impossible to find a small dog available for adoption as Southlanders sought furry companions. In many Southland shelters, only larger breeds remained available for adoption. Now Los Angeles Animal Service is touting the joys of big dogs while offering discounted adoption fees for larger breeds […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Walkathon

    October 9, 2020

    On Saturday, October 3, hundreds of walkers from across 15 states joined the path to bettering the world for children with autism and their families as part of BluePath Service Dogs’ fourth annual walkathon. The family-friendly fundraiser – this year held virtually – raised more than $120,000 to further BluePath’s mission of providing autism service […]

    Read more

    Service Dog In The Marching Band

    October 9, 2020

    In a year that is anything but normal, the Jones College Maroon Typhoon Marching Band has welcomed its first known service dog member this fall. Laurie, a 3-year-old golden retriever, is baritone saxophone player Sara-Beth McKellar’s service dog. The Vicksburg native was diagnosed with epilepsy as a sophomore in high school after her first seizure. […]

    Read more

    Church Blesses Animals

    October 9, 2020

    St. Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in Port Jervis hosted a special outdoor service last Sunday afternoon to bless the community’s pets, animals and other living creatures. In keeping with current pandemic rules, pet owners wore masks, remained distant, and took part in praying for dogs, cats, turtles, and other pets and animals around […]

    Read more

    Police Welcomes New Canine

    October 9, 2020

    Young Kingston Police service dog Bask may look small, but his handler says his training and energy are proving that he’s up to fill the shoes of his predecessor. “I think he’s going to be a great little dog,” Const. Jeff Dickson said, looking down at his new partner. A partner that, wearing the right […]

    Read more

    Dog Park For Travelers

    October 9, 2020

    St. Petersburg is widely recognized as a dog-friendly city, and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is making sure its four-legged visitors and their humans feel welcome by rolling out the artificial turf carpet. With the completion of the airport’s parking and roadway project – part of a series of multi-million dollar improvements at the airport over the […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Helps Firefighters

    October 9, 2020

    Firefighters battling the Archie Creek and Thielsen fires have had some long, exhausting days. But for some, their troubles seemed to melt away once they got back to camp. Why? Meet Ralph Colombo. He hauls oversize loads. And joining Ralph is his service dog, Cowboy – the morale boosting, firefighting puppy. “He just keeps my […]

    Read more

    Pet Therapy Program

    October 9, 2020

    Saturday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day, which this year has a new sense of urgency for many. Covid-19 has taken a mental and emotional toll on healthcare workers across the U.S but there is a program boosting the spirits of doctors and nurses on the frontlines. At UC Irvine Medical Center in Southern […]

    Read more

    A Service Dogs Place

    October 9, 2020

    A new Pineville nonprofit that helps people with disabilities obtain service dogs has made its first match. The Saber Life Foundation was started in March by Danea Key and her husband Joel. They provide people with trained service dogs, paying 51 percent of the cost, with the client paying the other 49 percent. Service dogs […]

    Read more

    Dog Beating Cancer

    October 9, 2020

    A little over a year after a local dog was given only a few months to live after being diagnosed with bone cancer, she is still in remission and will be celebrated her twelfth birthday this month. Cocoa has been with her owner, Bucyrus resident Christie Auck, since she was nine-weeks-old. “On Aug. 18, 2019, […]

    Read more

    More Recent News